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Phoenix Comicon's Paid Staff
Snafu: Good, Bad, Ugly

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After A Confusing Month Of Updates And Uncertainty, The Organizers And Heads Of The Annual Phoenix Comicon Have Decided That The Event Will Utilize An All-Paid Staff At All Events In The Future

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By Ryan Scott
Modern Times Magazine

Jan. 31, 2017 — Phoenix Comicon has become a lot more than a very humble comic book trade show.

In recent years, it has become one of the largest conventions of its kind in the country, rivaled only by monsters like San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic Con. With growth comes change, which is, in itself, not a bad thing. However, some of the recent changes with Phoenix Comicon have been the subject of controversy and are ultimately leading to mixed results, both good and bad.

Namely, Phoenix Comicon is now going to utilize an all-paid staff moving forward.

To that point, all of the events run by Phoenix Comicon’s parent company Square Egg Entertainment will be using this model in the future and will not be using the thousands of volunteers that helped make the events work in the past.

After much deliberation, we have decided to shift to an all paid staff in the operation of Phoenix Comicon and all events associated with Square Egg Entertainment, including Phoenix Fan Fest, Minnesota Fan Fest, and Keen Halloween,” Solberg said in a statement.

The change was mostly based on changing perceptions on what was acceptable use of volunteers. Emerald City Comicon, Seattle, for example, was sued in March 2016 in a class-action lawsuit.

When I started Phoenix Comicon I simply followed the model that existed for decades prior to me:  volunteers working for a for-profit company. That model is so prevalent within conventions and sporting events that it never occurred to me that there might be legal hurdles in operating in such a fashion. However, in recent years, both private parties and governmental agencies have taken the position that a for-profit company can only use volunteer labor under limited circumstances and the lines are not always bright. In my announcement last week, I referenced changes within the industry that are forcing us to adopt a new staffing process without offering specifics. I was referring to this shift in position,” Solberg said in a statement.

The Long And Winding Blue Ribbon
Square Egg Entertainment announced to the public and all past volunteers at the end of December that in the future all volunteers would have to be members of a non-profit — Blue Ribbon Army — in order to volunteer. The idea was that Blue Ribbon Army would handle all of the volunteers for Phoenix Comicon. The goals was to get the Blue Ribbon Army designated non-profit social club recognized officially as a 501(c)(7). Members of the Blue Ribbon Army would pay dues and the Blue Ribbon Army would recruit the volunteers used for Phoenix Comicon.Solberg would likewise serve on the board of Blue Ribbon Army.

“As a group that started as a Phoenix Comicon fan page, we (Blue Ribbon Army) could not be more proud of the journey that we have taken with them (Phoenix Comicon). While this particular part of the story did not shake out the way we would have preferred, we 100% feel that the decision to go with the paid model was not taken lightly and we respect Matt Solberg and PHXCC leadership for making it,” said Blue Ribbon Army co-founder Matt Hinds. “The many ways that Matt Solberg’s conventions have touched our lives are immeasurable and he will always have our full support and respect.”

Convention director Matt Solberg would not comment for this article. In a January release, he said after some of the backlash was felt by the move to Blue Ribbon Army, Square Egg Entertainment came to conclusion Phoenix Comicon had outgrown its old model and needed to adapt. However, he was on the board for the Blue Ribbon Army and many felt that represented a conflict of interest. Not only was that an issue, but with dues being required to be a part of the Blue Ribbon Army, members of the community were accusing Phoenix Comicon of making people essentially have to pay to volunteer.

“Many of you were concerned over my involvement as an Equity and Board member and any perceived conflicts of interest. Therefore, effective immediately, I am resigning my position on the board and have begun the process of unwinding my equity position. This will place the power and voting rights of Blue Ribbon Army in the hands of Matt and Jen Hinds. Upon completion I will have no equity or voting stake within Blue Ribbon Army and will not be listed on any documents filed with the state, although  Square Egg Entertainment remains a corporate member...For anyone who has already purchased a Blue Ribbon Army membership who wishes to not take part in said group will receive a full refund. Please contact Blue Ribbon Army,” Solberg said in an emeialed statement.

After some back peddling, several impromptu meetings among past volunteers, and some seemingly messy, confusing PR, it was ultimately decided that the partnership with Blue Ribbon Army wasn’t going to happen and that Phoenix Comicon was going to go in a completely different direction, using an all-paid staff. The problem? There will be significantly less people on hand for the event, since Phoenix Comicon can’t afford to pay everyone to stay on. In fact, by Matt Solberg’s own estimation, roughly 30 percent of the staff will remain. That could mean changes are on the way for the con-goer, as well.

This Year’s Con Will Likely Seem Different
“I don't see things staying exactly the same with significantly less staff. 1,500 down to 450. The volunteer intensive positions will need to be reduced. Line control and other operations positions seem to be relatively cut-proof since they are important to attendee experience,” said Shawn Demumbrum, former head of comic book programming for Phoenix Comicon and founder of SpazDog Press. Demumbrum added, “Will anyone miss the Steampunk programming, probably not?”

Surely someone will miss steampunk programming and things of the like, but he has a point. There are some minor elements of Phoenix Comicon programming that can be eliminated in order to simplify things for the smaller staff, but there will be people who miss those elements and there will surely be some elements of the convention that will suffer. It isn’t as if demand to attend Phoenix Comicon is going to significantly decline simply because there is less staff on hand.

Additionally, many who volunteered in the past in order to get a free pass to the event will likely have to pay to get in after 2017. As part of the announcement that all-staff would be paid, Square Egg Entertainment promised 2016 volunteers would be given free entrance to this year’s Con.

Currently, a full event badge is $55, but prices are going up on February first.

“I understand the changes,  but it was handled poorly.  But it's a case of one person ruins it for everyone,” said Marissa Lee, a member of the Blue Ribbon Army who also runs The Princess Project AZ. It was definitely more than one person, but she was referring to the backlash and the response to said backlash. “Furthermore they made a decision and should stick to it. Showing that they will buckle this easy shows that they don't have everyone at heart. There are many people who could only go because they were volunteers.”

Unfortunately for Lee, her feelings about the situation aren’t based only on her no longer being able to gain free access to Phoenix Comicon via volunteering. Princess Project AZ visits sick children in hospitals in costumes as princesses from Disney movies and other sects of pop culture. Their group volunteered at Phoenix Comicon but also was given a booth to help gain some attention for their group. Almost immediately after the announcement was made that Phoenix Comicon would no longer be using volunteers, Lee was told Princess Project AZ would not be given a booth this year.

“We have finalized space on the 3rd floor and with the new layouts we are moving forward with, we cannot offer you space this year. However, we may have space for you to participate in programming,” Lee was told. There is no evidence that this decision was made based on the new staffing changes, but the timing is coincidental and since they have been invited in the past, it at least raises an eyebrow or two that this just just so happens to be the year a seemingly very worthwhile organization like Princess Project AZ loses their space.

“My charity got word of mouth [from the convention] but it also gave downtime and stuff for kids.  A free place for children to interact and learn to love their parents hobbies. To learn to be more accepting of everyone,” Lee added.

Surely there will be other changes, like the one Lee and Princess Project AZ experienced. But Lee also had some seemingly logical concerns with the changes.

“If it was for growth purposes why go from 1,400 staff to 400,” Lee said. “Last year was chaos the first day. I can only imagine with a 3rd of the staff what this year will be like.”
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